A Hijacking (***)

a hijackingThere’s no fun to be had on the high seas with Tobias Lindholm’s A Hijacking, a frenetic Danish thriller that accurately captures the tense atmosphere surrounding a hostage crisis. While on a cargo run in the Indian Ocean, the MV Rozen and its crew of Danish seamen are held hostage by a group of Somali pirates. The shipping company that owns the vessel must come to terms with the pirates on an acceptable ransom amount in order to end the nightmare for everyone. When the company’s greed and withholding tactics extend the negotiations into weeks and months instead of days, their seafaring employees’ spirits begin deteriorating, and death and misfortune suddenly draw closer for everyone involved. Led by believable performances and a shiny coat of authenticity, A Hijacking will have you biting your nails out of fear and shaking your head out of frustration. Paul Greengrass’ very similar Captain Phillips (due out later this year) has its work cut out if it wants to top this critical darling of a foreign thriller.

Based on actual events, A Hijacking places its audience in two separate locations: on board the ship with the Danish hostages and inside a stuffy boardroom with the obstinate negotiators. Our entry into the former hellhole is via the ship’s cook, Mikkel Hartmann (Johan Philip Asbæk), whose skills in the kitchen become a valuable resource for both his crew and the pirate kidnappers. Mikkel is also used as proof that the crew of the MV Rozen is indeed alive. Chief negotiator for the Somali pirates, Omar (Abdihakin Asgar), puts Mikkel on the phone occasionally to let the ship’s company know that their precious labor force is hanging onto life, if barely. As Mikkel, Asbæk’s wide-eyed looks of panic and disheveled appearance recall Alfie Allen’s tortured Theon Greyjoy from Game of Thrones. Like Allen, Asbæk knows how to draw an audience’s pity and remorse just by the palpable fear emanating from his irises.

On safer but no less hectic ground, we see the bleak scenario from the perspective of CEO Peter C. Ludvigsen (Søren Malling). As a man who makes deals with business sharks all year round, the somewhat arrogant Ludvigsen assumes he can handle a crisis of this magnitude. But truthfully, he has no idea how to handle the pressure placed under one person when lives of an entire crew of innocent workers are at stake, especially with their families on standby waiting for good news. His crisis management team, led by the imbecilic Connor Julian (Gary Skjoldmose Porter), is more concerned about preserving the company’s funds than they are about speedily ending the ordeal for the hostages. Malling is the MVP of the film, starting off as this serious, tight-lipped mogul who soon becomes exasperated and vexed by the inhumane tactics he’s forced to employ by the board of directors. Any script or actor that can make an audience care so much about a multibillion dollar-earning CEO is one of great value.

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Don’t let my upbeat positivity suggest that A Hijacking is a film without faults. For starters, I’m not sure why Lindholm decided against showing the genesis of the hijacking. I get that sensationalizing the event would undermine the psychological gravitas the film possesses, but eradicating an entire scene of the Somali pirates physically boarding the ship and taking over seems counter-intuitive to the movie’s title. Also, A Hijacking at times weaves out of its doom and gloom climate, and ventures dangerously close to black comedy and satire. Particularly in the boardroom scenes, the absurdity of the proceedings are more akin to the war room scenes in Dr. Strangelove than the hectic-to-the-minute stressful environs of, say, 24’s CTU building. Humor can be a useful tool to show the incompetence of such corporations during a situation as grievous as this one, but Lindholm stretches the laughs out too much at the beginning and nearly threatens to detach our investment before the crisis really spirals out of control. Finally, there aren’t enough moments featuring the ship and its crew of hostages. The film skews its running time to favor the boardroom scenes. While those segments are effective and just as spine-tingling in parts, I would have preferred a stronger balance between the two co-dependent plot threads.

And yet, it’s tough to deny the sheer volume of genuine terror you feel throughout A Hijacking. The documentary-style cinematography adds an extra layer of gritty realism to the experience, making us feel as though we’re truly a part the unnerving world Lindholm’s created.  Furthermore, the Somali pirates aren’t stereotypically characterized as monstrous beings without souls. They are multi-layered and demonstrate the same varying degrees of morality as their mostly white corporate adversaries. Lindholm, who also wrote the immaculate drama The Hunt, has one of the loudest directorial voices from overseas. Give or take a year or two, and I imagine he’ll be a huge director in the States as well.

Magnolia Pictures’ A Hijacking just opened this weekend in New York, Los Angeles, Irvine (Orange County), and San Francisco. Click here to find out when the film — which will expand nationally in the coming weeks — lands at a theater near you. Below, you’ll also find the trailer.